A few evenings later, Aiden sat at the vanity in the dancer's dressing room. He was already in costume for his upcoming performance, but he wasn't scheduled to go on stage for another hour. Too lazy to move from his seat, he decided to give himself a fresh manicure to pass the time. He grabbed a bottle of black polish, slapping it against his palm a few times before he opened it up. The scent of the lacquer was nearly buried beneath the smell of perfumes and body sprays floating in the air as he painted his nails in broad, even strokes.
He'd just finished his left pinkie when Suzie, a dancer known for her pastel kawaii themed burlesque performances, burst into the room, her eyes wide and upset.
"You guys, there's been another attack! A dancer from that rave club down the street was robbed not even an hour ago."
Aiden immediately twisted around in his chair to face her. "Were they hurt?"
The petite woman nodded. "Roughed up a little. Although she's mostly mad she lost a night's wages. But get this. The mugger ripped up the money just like he did to our little newbie cocktail server and the courtesan from Madam Blythe's yesterday. It's got to be the same guy."
"Why would he do that?" a dancer on the other side of the room asked.
Suzie sat down at her spot at the vanity. "I don't know about the Blythe girl but the rave dancer said he ranted about sinful earnings. I guess he doesn't want our ho money." She looked at Aiden. "Didn't he say something similar to Brandon?"
"Yeah, and I wouldn't be surprised if he said the same thing to the courtesan, we just haven't heard about it. Tearing up cash is too specific. It's got to be tied to his rants."
The dancer in the seat next to Aiden spoke up. "Oooh! That makes me so mad. If you're gonna rob my ass you better do something good with that money, don't just tear it up and toss it on the ground."
Aiden nodded in agreement with the others. It was horrible to steal someone's hard earned cash. Destroying the money right in their face was adding insult to injury. But to himself he worried that this could be escalating into a serious problem. Dancers were sometimes mugged - they were known to carry large sums of cash on them, making them a popular target for thieves. But this guy had now robbed three people so far and for whatever reason, he wasn't keeping the cash. That and his ranting meant he was no run of the mill mugger. Aiden had no idea why this was happening, but it might be a situation for his alter ego to look into.
Maybe he'd ask Blaze for assistance. The electric-powered hero didn't usually patrol this side of the river. However, he was adept at working nights and dealing with low-life scum. But that conversation would have to take place later. Right now, Aiden needed to make sure his fellow club workers were safe.
"Everybody be cautious out on the streets," he said to the room at large. "Don't flash any cash around and keep your personal protection in hand."
"I've always got protection, baby," Suzie said, pulling a condom from her makeup bag and waving it above her head.
Whistles and catcalls followed Suzie's deliberate misunderstanding.
Aiden grinned but the matter was too serious to let drop with a joke. "I don't mean condoms, Suzie. If anyone needs pepper spray or a stun gun, let me know and I'll hook you up."
The group of dancers agreed to be careful and watch out for each other. Aiden was glad they were all aware of the extra need to be safe, but that wasn't enough for him. Something about this mugger set off serious alarm bells in his head. He blasted his nails with Express Dry to make sure they wouldn't smudge, then grabbed his phone to send a text to Strong.
Hey, Boss. We're having a situation with a mugger over here in the Playground. The guy has a weird M.O. which makes me think he's got some kind of nefarious goal beyond robbing and that he doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. Zielinski backed me up on the first mugging the other night. And there was another one this evening. I think we should look into it.
Strong's response came through quickly.
Zielinski was with you?
Purely coincidence that he showed up at my job. But he can verify everything I've reported.
No need for that. If you think we need to look into this situation then we will.
Thanks. Aiden typed. Maybe Blaze can help. This sort of deal seems right up his alley.
I'll take that into consideration. Be prepared to patrol soon.
Aiden sent a thumbs up emoji before he set the phone back down on the table. He cared about this little glittery and exotic world. When he'd been at his lowest, hurt and pissed off because he was unable to continue dancing ballet, he'd come here. At first, he'd taken to the pole out of spite and anger. But it wasn't long before the Playground Players showed him that they welcomed him as one of their own, and had his back when he needed them. Now, he was loyal as hell to the people who danced in heels while adorned with glitter, and he would do everything in his power to protect them.
* * *
Mike sat at his desk, a print out of a contract for a new influencer in front of him. He stared down at the document but he wasn't seeing it. Instead, he saw a delectable round ass barely covered by a skimpy black leotard. He saw lean thighs split open wide to straddle his lap. He saw black hair sliding over the curve of a spine, daring him to touch, even though he knew that to do so was forbidden.
The images were burned into his mind's eye, thanks to the number of times he'd called them up over the weekend. They'd been on his mind enough that he'd actually considered returning to the Flirtatious Fox on his own for another chance to see Stardust dance. But he'd held himself back from following that impulse. Showing up once to Stardust's place of employment without knowing he worked there was one thing. Going back after he had that knowledge was another. He would have to be satisfied with the highlight reel playing in his head over and over while he tried to ignore the erection that accompanied each viewing. Like the one that was starting now, his cock thickening in his pants as he remembered Stardust rolling his hips forward until their bodies touched in the most intimate of places...
Mike guiltily jumped in his chair, snapping to attention at the sound of his admin's pleasant voice coming through the desk phone speaker. He took a moment to get himself under control, making sure there wouldn't be any hint of arousal in his voice before he hit the flashing button to respond. "Yes, Leo?"
"You might want to take a look at Johnny's Twitter feed before you go home for the evening."
Mike clenched his jaw to hold back a curse. "I will. Thank you for the head's up."
It seemed that his problem influencer's streak of good behavior had ended. Mike logged on to the social media network and went to Johnny's profile to check it out. He'd posted a thread of polarizing political tweets, leading to a firestorm of fury in the replies. Mike looked at the clock. It was almost time for him to leave. Unfortunately, the tweets were incendiary enough that he needed to stay and address the situation. They were too inflammatory to leave up overnight. Mike would have to contact Johnny, get him to delete the thread and tweet an apology, then have yet another discussion on what was expected for a representative of Marin's Outdoors.
Mike sighed in resignation. Talking to Johnny was always a pain in the ass. If he wasn't so popular, bringing in millions of views to Marin's products each month, Mike would have cut him loose him as soon as he'd taken over this position. He was reaching for his office phone to make the call when his personal cell rang. Grateful for the reprieve, he changed course and answered his cell instead.
"This is Mike Zielinski."
"Mike, it's Strong."
"Strong. How are you?"
"I'm doing well. Do you mind swinging by the headquarters after work? I'd like to talk to you about the other night."
"Not at all." He wasn't surprised to receive this call from the director of the ACG. Stardust would have filled his commanding officer in on the incident with the mugger and included Mike's involvement in the report.
"Great, I'll see you here in a few hours."
His reprieve over, Mike ended the call and pulled up his office phone to call Johnny.
After work, Mike drove to the firehouse. He had to grit his teeth and push to keep driving forward when he got close to the barrier. The ACG auditory defense device made him itch beneath his skin. Thankfully, once he drove through the mirage the buzzing stopped, and Mike shook off the unsettling feeling. A minute later, he walked into the Guardian headquarters. Strong was there, along with Caleb. A young East Asian man was in the back workout area, doing chin-ups on the exercise machine.
"Thanks for coming in," Strong said as they shook hands. "You remember Caleb?"
Mike nodded at the young man with his bright blue hair and a pair of icy blue headphones on his head but tilted behind his ears.
"And that's Ignite over there working out."
Ignite paused in counting out his reps to call out a greeting.
"Hey," Mike called back.
"Let's talk," Strong said after the quick introductions.
Mike followed Strong into his office. The lieutenant closed the door behind them, waved Mike to one of the chairs in front of his desk, and took the other for himself. Then he got right to the point.
"I understand from Stardust's report that you helped him out the other night."
"Yes," Mike answered. "Someone robbed and assaulted one of the employees at the club where he works."
"And you stepped in with the assist. Stardust appreciates that. And so do I."
Mike wasn't so sure that Stardust appreciated his help after the grudging thanks he'd given, but he let that go unmentioned. "I was happy to help. I couldn't stand by while someone was in trouble."
A satisfied smile spread across the lieutenant's face.
"You know what you sound like."
Mike laughed. "I don't think helping out one person one time makes me a hero. It was all spur of the moment. A random bystander probably would have done the same. With that being said, I do want to join your team."
"Excellent!" Strong said, clapping his hands together once.
"I do want to join up, but there's something I need to tell you first. I don't want to come on board without being honest about my powers. They're not as precise as I'd like. And I'd hate for there to be collateral damage in the middle of a fight because they got away from me."
Some of Strong's excitement faded. "What do you mean?" he asked with his forehead creased in a frown.
"I can't always pinpoint exactly where I aim. I can take out a cow. But I'd probably take out the barn behind the cow too. If we can solve that problem then I'll join up with no hesitation."
"Hmmm..." Strong leaned back in his chair for a moment before he pushed himself to his feet. "Let's see if Caleb can assist with that. Come with me."
They went back out into the main area, where Mike explained to Caleb that he could hit the general vicinity of what he was aiming at but that he couldn't strike with precision.
"Can you come up with something to help him control his aim?" Strong asked.
Caleb grinned. "Oh yeah. I can definitely help with that. Do you mind giving me a demonstration of your powers? I need to see you in action to know what I'm up against."
"Here?" Mike raised a brow. "Might punch a few holes in the walls of your new headquarters."
"That's only funny because I know you're joking," Caleb said with a laugh. "There's an open field not too far from here. We can go there."
"Sounds good," Strong said. "I'll come along too. Nick, you stay here and keep an eye on things."
Caleb grabbed his laptop. "I'll be watching remotely," he said to Nick as he slid the computer into a gray nylon messenger bag. "Try not to burn the place down while I'm gone."
Mike cast a glance at Ignite, who'd switched from chin ups to hanging upside down to do crunches, wondering what Caleb meant by that comment. Maybe the man had fire powers he couldn't control?
Ignite flipped and dropped down from the chin up bar. "He's kidding," he said to Mike as he walked over to join them. "I'm a fireman."
"Who doesn't know how to watch his popcorn in the microwave."
"I don't get why they'd put a popcorn button on the microwave if it's not timed to exactly pop your popcorn."
Caleb dropped his head back with a groan. "I told you that you're not supposed to use it for those small personal bags of popcorn."
"Then why'd they put a button on there that you can't use?"
The two were clearly gearing up for what sounded like a repeat argument, when Strong stepped in and put a stop to their squabbling. "That's enough. Ignite, eat chips if you get hungry. Let's go," he said to Mike and Caleb.
Outside, they walked over to a big black SUV with dark tinted windows. Strong took the wheel and Mike waved Caleb to the front passenger seat.
"It must be hard getting used to driving after flying everywhere for so long," Caleb said once they were underway.
"I haven't been active as a superhero for nearly ten years," Strong answered.
"Come on, you really expect me - us," Caleb said with a look to the back at Mike - "to believe that you haven't used those wings not once? Not even for runs to the grocery store?"
It was quiet for a moment.
"Maybe if I just need to get milk and bread."
Caleb laughed. "I knew it!"
Mike grinned. "I would use them too, sir. You've earned the right."
"It saves time. And I'm all about efficiency," Strong said as he turned into the parking lot of a corner market.
Caleb twisted in his seat to look at Mike again when Strong put the SUV in Park.
"So how is it the Army didn't perfect your powers when they gave them to you? I know the Air Force did multiple tests and trials on Strong and the others in the A-Wing initiative before they turned them loose."
"My powers weren't part of an initiative. And I wasn't born with them either. They're from an accident. A completely unplanned side-effect from an experiment gone wrong."
"Oh, wow," Caleb said with his dark eyes wide. "That's unexpected."
Mike held back a snort. Unexpected hardly covered it.
He and Caleb stayed in the truck while Strong went in to the store. While they waited, Mike explained in brief detail about the night he'd received his powers, how they worked, and what they did, Caleb typing notes on his laptop while he listened. After a few minutes, Strong returned with two twelve-packs of bottled water and set them in the back with Mike. They left the corner mart, heading to the open field Caleb directed Strong to, which turned out to be an abandoned construction site.
Caleb looked over the area as they exited the SUV. "This should be perfect."
Mike agreed. It was an open space with nothing around for miles in three directions. His beams dissipated before they reached that distance, so he could demonstrate his power to Caleb without worrying about hitting an innocent bystander or causing property damage.
They set up the bottles of water on tree stumps, sawhorses, and mounds of dirt left behind by the unknown construction company. The arrangement gave him targets at various heights and distance.
"Ready when you are."
Mike faced the first bottle. Activating his beams was like walking. His legs moved because he needed to move. It wasn't necessary to think left, right, left, right to get him going. It was the same with his blasts. The green beams shot across the expanse of grass. He didn't hit the bottle, but the radius of the force's energy knocked it over anyway, sending it hurtling across the field. He achieved the same result with the second. The third he actually hit. The bottle exploded from the impact, sending water spraying into the air.
By the time he made it through all of the first pack and most of the second, his eyes were dry and hot, as if he'd just woken up after sleeping in front of a space heater pointed directly at his face. And a headache was already building steam in his temples. He blinked a few times to work up some moisture in his eyes and turned to the two men behind him.
"See what I mean? Very little precision."
Caleb sat cross-legged on the ground; his computer open on his lap. "You're right. Your rate of precision is only about sixty-five percent. I can design you a pair of glasses," he continued as he started to type. "Using prisms, the lenses will narrow the radius of the blast, allowing you to focus and hit only what you're directly looking at."
"That would be very helpful. I'd feel much better about using my powers in public spaces if I had tighter control over them."
Caleb nodded. "I'll get you fixed up right. You two pick up the trash for recycling so we can get back to HQ and I can start working on these."
By the time they returned to the firehouse, Caleb had already come up with a preliminary design. He put a 3-D image of them on one of the monitors for everyone to see.
Ignite walked over to get a closer look at the screen. "Make him look cool, Caleb. Don't give him a pair of superhero Blue Blockers."
"The important thing is that they're functional," Lieutenant Strong said. "Doesn't matter what they look like."
Mike was inclined to agree with the lieutenant. But that didn't mean he was completely on board with wearing an ugly piece of equipment on his face.
"Guys, have some faith in your local tech genius. I can make them stylish and functional. But don't ask me to make them affordable. The materials needed for these are going to cost a pretty penny. No worries about that either. We've got plenty of funding to cover it."
"Good," Strong said with a determined nod. "Get them worked up as soon as possible so we can get him in the field." He turned to Mike. "Once you have the glasses you can test them out on a mission and use that time to see if joining the ACG is truly right for you. You can work with Stardust again once the tech is ready."
At the mention of Stardust, a vivid memory flashed in Mike's mind - silky black hair flowing over pale skin, golden eyes lit with a teasing smile, and warm thighs straddling his own.
Caleb suddenly started coughing loudly, as if he'd choked on something.
Mike shook off the memory and looked down at the techie in concern. "Are you alright?"
"Sorry. Just errr... swallowed wrong," he said after his coughing fit was under control.
Caleb appeared to be okay so Mike answered Strong's question. "Working with Stardust would be fine," he said politely. "But I think it would be a valuable exercise for me to work with various members of your team, sir." Between his attraction to Stardust and Stardust's apparent annoyance in dealing with him at the scene of the mugging, he thought it best that they didn't work together.
"Hmmm. Of course. Well, we'll worry about partners later. For now, let me fill you in on how we operate. Have a seat."
Mike pulled one of the club chairs closer and gave his attention to Caleb and the lieutenant. As he listened, he breathed a silent sigh of relief that he'd dodged the bullet of being paired up with that golden tiger.
My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.